Racism is endemic in fashion. Naomi Campbell's 'name and shame' might be the answer

The catwalk is white-washed, and industry insiders have been passing the buck for too long. A new tactic from The Diversity Coalition might finally change something.

New Statesman
Iman, Bethann Hardison, Naomi Campbell and Liya Kebede pose at the 'Blacks In Fashion' panel discussion in New York. Image: Getty

This year, at New York Fashion Week, 6 per cent of catwalk models were black and 9.1 per cent were Asian. 2 per cent were Latina; 0.3 per cent were categorised as ‘other’. And 82.7 per cent were white.

Like so many scandals in fashion, this could easily have been tacitly ignored by onlookers or resignedly accepted. Instead, a trio of industry insiders – models Naomi Campbell and Iman, and former model agent Bethann Hardison – have branded themselves as The Diversity Coalition and used their uniquely prestigious platforms to name and shame those designers who put on all-white shows at the Fall/Winter New York Fashion Week 2013. A minimalist website run by the three industry heavyweights compiles lists of shows which have excluded non-white models, often headed by names dripping with kudos: Alexander Wang, Victoria Beckham, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta.

The fashion industry isn’t known for its enthusiastic embracement of diversity. Take the so-called ‘size zero debate’: when agents were accused of recruiting models outside the Stockholm Centre for Eating Disorders as young girls with anorexia left their appointments, the industry responded with a collective shrug of all their bony shoulders. Outspoken commitments to slots for ‘plus size’ models abound, but the shows often fail to materialise. Various countries and Fashion Weeks have announced BMI-based initiatives intended to prevent unhealthily thin models from working and to stem the demand for them - then quietly reneged upon these promises. Pleas from consumers to stop heavily Photoshopped fashion photography that makes models appear impossibly lithe have also been met with the equivalent of a condescending pat on the head (let’s not forget that 84,000 people – mostly teenage girls – signed a petition asking Seventeen magazine to commit to publishing one un-retouched photograph per issue last year, which the teen mag’s editor never properly acted upon. But she did offer the 14 year old author of the petition an internship.)

Where race is concerned, fashion has an equally serious problem. Most of this revolves around passing the buck: agents say that they can’t take on as many non-white models because designers are reluctant to book them, so it’s bad for business. Designers say that because the agents aren’t employing them, they don’t have enough non-white models to choose from to fit their ranges. Make-up artists who have no make-up for darker skin tones and hair stylists who don’t know how to work with black hair argue that they can’t afford to train or buy materials for the types of models they hardly ever encounter. Fashion Week coordinators say that it’s the designers’ responsibility to hire their own clients, and to involve themselves in the process would be anti-capitalist. Magazines argue that the catwalk dictates what and who is ‘in’, and they just follow the money. It’s an age-old story of discrimination: each individual playing a part in a system that excludes certain types of people, and none willing to take any responsibility for it.

How should fashion respond? When someone important enough has brought up the issue in the past, it has been met with a brief surge of shame-faced tokenism on the runway. For the few non-white models who are lucky enough to have fought their way on to agents’ books in the first place, this realistically translates into increased competition between each other, and the driving down of wages. In order to make themselves desirable for the one or two slots available (if there are more than two black models in a show, it's apparently seen as 'a black thing'), these models often agree to work for less money. Once again, non-white employees are underpaid and underrepresented because of the colour of their skin.

According to a Jezebel report depressingly entitled ‘Fashion Week’s models are getting whiter’ – one that backs up statistically what Campbell has already said anecdotally about fashion moving backwards since she first started modelling – the industry is getting worse. But of course, none of these agents, designers, casting directors, fashion coordinators, make-up artists and stylists would individually identify as racist. No longer will this excuse hold, according to The Diversity Coalition. They have pre-empted the argument, and succinctly stated: “No matter the intention, the result is racism.”

Amongst all of their rhetoric and their broken promises, their refusal to ever properly identify or tangibly solve their own unequivocal problems, fashionistas have been caught short by Campbell and co's cool-headed approach. Numbers and names are harder to manipulate than vague 'calls for change' or 'commitments needed for the future'. Anyone can click on The Diversity Coalition's website and see exactly who is part of the problem. If enough people hold these designers to account, the famously inflexible runway royals might even listen.

Perhaps, having had their shows thoroughly named and shamed, we could finally start to see a change from fashion that goes beyond token black models on a white-washed catwalk.